Do Players Perform Better in Fantasy in a Contract Year?

May 27, 2020
Do Players Perform Better in Fantasy in a Contract Year?

Looking through 4for4’s history of incredible content, I stumbled upon this article written back in 2012 by Jonathan Bales. It got me thinking. I love George Kritikos’ article outlining players in a contract year, but with updated data, does the old adage about players improving play when the pressure is on for new money hold up? Bales found it to be more myth than fact eight years ago, but has the data changed?

Getting Started

I looked at the last five years of players in a contract year to determine whether or not there was a significant increase in fantasy points per game (FPPG) from the previous season.

Some qualifiers:

  • Players must have played at least half the season in both years. Since I was using FPPG, I didn’t want to skew the results by including someone who was productive in a small sample size, nor did I want to include someone who missed significant time due to injury in either of the seasons (i.e. A.J. Green last year).
  • Players must’ve scored at least 5.0 FPPG in their contract year. Anything less than that was unlikely to return a player worth seriously considering in a redraft league.
  • I excluded players who re-signed with their own teams early or during the season. The data comes from players who were expected to be top-100 free agents after the end of the season, and was pulled from various archived news outlets and reports. The attempt is to be more meaningful than completely comprehensive.

I started with an overall look at the numbers by year, to check for annual consistency.

Contract Year Performance by Season
Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
2015 118.9 160.0 +41.1 +34.6%
2016 181.5 188.2 +6.7 +3.7%
2017 152.7 141.2 -11.5 -7.5%
2018 95.2 105.1 +9.9 +10.4%
2019 289.9 281.3 -8.6 -3.0%
Grand Total 838.2 875.8 +37.6 +4.5%

The first thing that stands out is there is no consistency year-to-year. That's not a good sign for making determinations, and there’s a huge jump back in 2015 followed by a significant fall in 2017. That seems like there’s a likely outlier in each year. There is an overall increase of 4.5% over the course of the last five years, so at least there’s a little bit of a premise for contract year improvements on a macro scale.

Let’s take a look at it by position:

Contract Year Performance by Position
Position Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
QB 242.6 234.9 -7.7 -3.2%
RB 303 311.3 +8.3 +2.7%
TE 22.3 39.8 +17.5 +78.5%
WR 270.3 289.8 +19.5 +7.2%
Grand Total 838.2 875.8 +37.6 +4.5%

It's interesting that quarterbacks are the only position that showed a drop in production in the aggregate data. The biggest jump was at tight end, but looking a little deeper, only six players qualified for consideration. More on that later.

Running backs and wide receivers showed a nominal increase in production. To get an idea of how significant each category is, let’s look at the players and years broken out by position and see if we notice any trends.

Quarterbacks

Quarterbacks are so dependent on opportunity, coaching and supporting cast, it’s difficult to take all the different factors into consideration when evaluating whether or not being in a contract year was an actual motivator.

Quarterback Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Case Keenum 2017 11.1 15.7 +4.6 +41.4%
Case Keenum 2019 13.4 7.4 -6.0 -44.8%
Colin Kaepernick 2016 12.0 15.3 +3.3 +27.5%
Dak Prescott 2019 17.6 21.1 +3.5 +19.9%
Drew Brees 2017 20.8 16.4 -4.4 -21.2%
Drew Brees 2019 20.1 20.4 +0.3 +1.5%
Jameis Winston 2019 17.8 18.7 +0.9 +5.1%
Kirk Cousins 2016 18.1 18.8 +0.7 +3.9%
Kirk Cousins 2017 18.8 17.4 -1.4 -7.4%
Marcus Mariota 2019 12.5 6.5 -6.0 -48.0%
Philip Rivers 2019 17.2 14.7 -2.5 -14.5%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2015 15.0 17.8 +2.8 +18.7%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2016 17.8 9.5 -8.3 -46.6%
Ryan Tannehill 2019 12.9 18.7 +5.8 +45.0%
Tom Brady 2019 17.5 16.5 -1.0 -5.7%
Grand Total 242.6 234.9 -7.7 -3.2%

There are a lot of repeat names on the list, which makes sense. Contract year quarterbacks are often journeymen and/or players toward the end of their careers that struggle to lock up long-term money and don’t re-sign during the final year.

Looking at the names involved, I immediately discount players like Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. These guys are established, consistent producers for long-term teams, and it’s unlikely that contract status has anything to do with their production levels year-to-year.

Case Keenum had a huge increase when he played in Denver, then a huge decrease over two years in Washington. That’s not surprising, as he fits the journeyman designation and his increase in production was more likely a product of surprise opportunity than anything else.

The names I’m looking at are Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott, Ryan Tannehill, and Kirk Cousins in 2016, before the repeated franchise tag put a sour taste in his mouth.

Combined, these five quarterbacks saw a 4.9 FPPG improvement in contract years, or a 6.2% increase. We could argue over whether Tannehill should be included since he entered the season as a backup and was in an entirely new situation, but the only one of the five players who saw a decrease was Mariota last year, who was benched for Tannehill. Likewise, Winston went into a Bruce Arians offense for the first time in his career last season, which definitely contributed to his increase in production. Prescott is perhaps the most textbook example, since he was openly gunning for a new contract.

Verdict: Some Impact. Contract year can potentially make a difference in the rare instance you find a quality starting quarterback young enough to show progress.

Potential 2020 Candidates: Dak Prescott, Mitch Trubisky

Running Backs

Running backs are primarily dependent on workload. In that, contract year seems less likely to be a factor for this position group. Let’s look:

Running Back Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Adrian Peterson 2018 6.8 10.6 +3.8 +55.9%
Alfred Morris 2015 10.7 5.4 -5.3 -49.5%
Austin Ekeler 2019 9.3 13.6 +4.3 +46.2%
Bilal Powell 2015 2.0 8.0 +6.0 +300.0%
Chris Ivory 2015 8.4 11.5 +3.1 +36.9%
Chris Johnson 2015 5.7 9.2 +3.5 +61.4%
Christine Michael 2016 3.2 7.7 +4.5 +140.6%
DeAngelo Williams 2016 12.0 9.1 -2.9 -24.2%
Derrick Henry 2019 11.6 18.4 +6.8 +58.6%
Doug Martin 2015 6.2 12.5 +6.3 +101.6%
Doug Martin 2017 8.9 5.9 -3.0 -33.7%
Frank Gore 2017 11.0 9.0 -2.0 -18.2%
Frank Gore 2019 6.5 5.1 -1.4 -21.5%
Isaiah Crowell 2017 10.3 7.1 -3.2 -31.1%
Jerick McKinnon 2017 6.9 7.8 +0.9 +13.0%
Jordan Howard 2019 10.0 10.1 +0.1 +1.0%
Kareem Hunt 2019 18.6 8.1 -10.5 -56.5%
Kenyan Drake 2019 9.6 11.6 +2.0 +20.8%
Lamar Miller 2015 11.6 11.6 +0.0 +0.0%
Latavius Murray 2016 10.1 12.5 +2.4 +23.8%
LeGarrette Blount 2015 5.5 9.7 +4.2 +76.4%
LeGarrette Blount 2016 9.7 14.1 +4.4 +45.4%
LeGarrette Blount 2017 14.1 6.1 -8.0 -56.7%
LeVeon Bell 2017 20.0 17.1 -2.9 -14.5%
Mark Ingram 2018 13.8 10.1 -3.7 -26.8%
Matt Forte 2015 15.0 13.0 -2.0 -13.3%
Melvin Gordon 2019 18.5 11.6 -6.9 -37.3%
Peyton Barber 2019 8.1 6.3 -1.8 -22.2%
Rex Burkhead 2017 3.7 10.0 +6.3 +170.3%
T.J. Yeldon 2018 5.8 8.4 +2.6 +44.8%
Tevin Coleman 2018 9.4 10.1 +0.7 +7.4%
Grand Total 303.0 311.3 +8.3 +2.7%

Here are a lot of older guys on one-year deals (Adrian Peterson) and journeyman role-players (LeGarrette Blount), but there are some notable players on the list. Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Austin Ekeler all shined in contract years last season, though Drake and Ekeler were aided by a significant increase in workload due to external factors. Meanwhile, we saw Peyton Barber, Melvin Gordon, Frank Gore and Kareem Hunt all see decreases. Barber is the only one who had a real chance to up his game and failed to deliver, as the other three had other more significant reasons for a decrease in production.

Verdict: Very Little Impact. While some of these running backs definitely showed up big in contract years (Tevin Coleman, Latavius Murray and Henry, specifically) it’s not consistent enough across the board to attribute real substance to contract status. The overall numbers show a slight increase at the position, and there is a ton of candidates this season, but I think we can safely say opportunity and workload are still the primary indicators to use for evaluating running backs.

Potential 2020 Candidates: Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, Tevin Coleman, James White, Matt Breida, Kareem Hunt, James Conner, Tarik Cohen, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Marlon Mack

Wide Receivers

From the eyeball test, I always found wide receivers to fluctuate in intensity more noticeably. You can tell when a receiver is trying hard on blocks, or when his routes get a little crisper. This position group saw a 7.2% overall increase, so I was anxious to take a deeper look at it:

Wide Receiver Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Adam Humphries 2018 4.2 7.0 +2.8 +66.7%
Alshon Jeffery 2015 11.0 11.6 +0.6 +5.5%
Alshon Jeffery 2016 11.6 7.8 -3.8 -32.8%
Amari Cooper 2019 9.4 10.5 +1.1 +11.7%
Anquan Boldin 2015 8.5 7.2 -1.3 -15.3%
Anquan Boldin 2016 7.2 6.7 -0.5 -6.9%
Brandon LaFell 2016 4.8 7.6 +2.8 +58.3%
Brandon Marshall 2016 14.4 6.4 -8.0 -55.6%
Breshad Perriman 2019 4.6 7.3 +2.7 +58.7%
Danny Amendola 2017 3.9 5.2 +1.3 +33.3%
Danny Amendola 2019 4.6 5.2 +0.6 +13.0%
DeSean Jackson 2016 7.5 8.3 +0.8 +10.7%
DeSean Jackson 2018 6.3 9.2 +2.9 +46.0%
Devin Funchess 2018 8.3 5.6 -2.7 -32.5%
Donte Moncrief 2018 4.3 5.2 +0.9 +20.9%
Emmanuel Sanders 2019 10.6 7.2 -3.4 -32.1%
Golden Tate 2018 8.2 7.1 -1.1 -13.4%
Jamison Crowder 2018 6.3 6.0 -0.3 -4.8%
Jarvis Landry 2017 8.5 9.3 +0.8 +9.4%
Jeremy Kerley 2016 1.7 5.2 +3.5 +205.9%
Jermaine Kearse 2015 4.1 6.2 +2.1 +51.2%
John Brown 2018 4.9 6.4 +1.5 +30.6%
Kendall Wright 2016 6.1 5.6 -0.5 -8.2%
Kenny Britt 2016 5.4 8.5 +3.1 +57.4%
Kenny Stills 2016 3.9 7.9 +4.0 +102.6%
Larry Fitzgerald 2019 7.2 6.4 -0.8 -11.1%
Michael Floyd 2016 8.1 5.3 -2.8 -34.6%
Nelson Agholor 2019 6.3 5.0 -1.3 -20.6%
Phillip Dorsett 2019 3.1 5.1 +2.0 +64.5%
Pierre Garcon 2016 7.1 7.6 +0.5 +7.0%
Randall Cobb 2018 6.1 5.4 -0.7 -11.5%
Rishard Matthews 2015 1.8 8.2 +6.4 +355.6%
Robby Anderson 2019 7.6 6.9 -0.7 -9.2%
Robert Woods 2016 5.1 5.2 +0.1 +2.0%
Rueben Randle 2015 7.0 8.0 +1.0 +14.3%
Sammy Watkins 2017 6.9 7.2 +0.3 4.3%
Sammy Watkins 2019 7.5 6.2 -1.3 -17.3%
Taylor Gabriel 2019 5.3 6.8 +1.5 +28.3%
Ted Ginn 2016 9.3 6.6 -2.7 -29.0%
Travis Benjamin 2015 3.2 7.7 +4.5 140.6%
Tyrell Williams 2018 5.9 6.1 +0.2 +3.4%
Zach Pascal 2019 2.5 5.9 +3.4 +136.0%
Grand Total 270.3 289.8 +19.5 +7.2%

Once again, there are many older players playing on short-term deals such as Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall. There are also some notable negatives, with Robby Anderson last season the most glaring, as well as Michael Floyd in 2016. Some notable increases I largely attribute to surprise opportunity include Breshad Perriman and Zach Pascal last year, as well as Travis Benjamin and Rishard Matthews in 2015.

The names I find most interesting here are Adam Humphries, Amari Cooper, Devin Funchess, Jamison Crowder, Jarvis Landry, John Brown, Kenny Britt, Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery in 2015—in 2016, Jeffery was disgruntled playing on the franchise tag. Crowder, Funchess and Agholor had decreases in production, but the rest of that group increased. Each member of this group fits the criteria of what I would call meaningful contract status:

  1. Fairly safe status on the depth chart
  2. Noticeable offensive decline (i.e. injury to star quarterback, etc.)
  3. Not disgruntled for an easily discernible reason

It’s not perfect. Funchess, for example, suffered from a decline in Cam Newton’s health and Agholor actually got more of an opportunity last year than expected due to injuries. But overall, it’s a good way to whittle the list down to find something meaningful.

That group saw an overall combined increase of 8.7% in FPPG from the previous year to their contract seasons. That’s fairly significant and is worth thinking about when evaluating the players with deals expiring after this season.

Verdict: Conditional Impact. Contract year receivers who fit my three qualifiers have shown an overall increase in production. This is significant enough to warrant consideration as a factor, but still probably not enough to be a prime motivator for drafting them.

Potential 2020 Candidates: Allen Robinson, Kenny Stills, Breshad Perriman, Corey Davis, Will Fuller, Devin Funchess, Curtis Samuel, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, Dede Westbrook, Allen Lazard, Zach Pascal

Tight Ends

My theory about wide receivers would also be the case for tight ends. They can block with more intensity, work harder to come back to the quarterback and run crisper routes with extra motivation. Here are the results:

Tight End Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Ben Watson 2015 1.6 7.3 +5.7 +356.3%
Jack Doyle 2016 0.8 5.4 +4.6 +575.0%
Jared Cook 2018 4.9 7.9 +3.0 +61.2%
Jimmy Graham 2017 7.8 7.0 -0.8 -10.3%
Ladarius Green 2015 1.6 5.1 +3.5 +218.8%
Martellus Bennett 2016 5.6 7.1 +1.5 +26.8%
Grand Total 22.3 39.8 +17.5 +78.5%

It’s a small sample size for tight ends who meet the games played and FPPG minimum requirements over the past five years. That being said, its’ a huge increase, largely aided by increased opportunities from guys like Ladarius Green and Ben Watson in 2015 and Jack Doyle the following year. Jimmy Graham is the only player who showed a decrease, but it goes in line with his aging.

There’s not enough data to come up with something conclusive here, but seeing Jared Cook and Martellus Bennett increase production on short-term deals might be significant. Likewise, Ladarius Green and Jack Doyle were near the end of rookie deals when they saw increased opportunities. Outside of those two items however, there simply isn’t enough information here to determine something definitive.

Verdict: Possible Impact? Contract year tight ends could see an increase in production, but fantasy owners shouldn’t put a ton of stock into it, and opportunity still seems to be the primary factor.

Potential 2020 Candidates: Hunter Henry, Jared Cook, Gerald Everett

Bottom Line

While I walked into this exercise wanting to disagree with Bales’ assessment from way back in 2012, I couldn’t completely disagree with him. Though there is some increase in production from contract year players in this sample, the variables are far too significant to say contract status is the leading factor.

  • Situation and opportunity still reign as the best categories to consider for improved fantasy production, particularly for running backs.
  • Quarterbacks are rarely in a situation where contract status is the largest determining factor.
  • Wide receivers seem to be the most likely to see a bump in a contract year, assuming all other factors remain reasonably constant.
  • Tight ends have a small sample size to work with, but there’s something to be said for a tight end on the last season of a rookie deal, or on a one-year prove-it deal who is set to start.
  • In general, fantasy owners should view contract status as a tiebreaker or just one small part of the rankings puzzle, and not as a major factor.

Potential 2020 Candidates from OverTheCap.

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